Joe Davidson

Hometown Report: Meraz takes the long and high road back to Elk Grove High

The Elk Grove Thundering Herd gather on the field before they face the Damonte Ranch Mustangs during their game at the Honor Bowl at Del Oro High School, Friday, August 29, 2014.
The Elk Grove Thundering Herd gather on the field before they face the Damonte Ranch Mustangs during their game at the Honor Bowl at Del Oro High School, Friday, August 29, 2014. sacbeephotos@sacbee.com

Carlos Meraz knows the shortcuts to Elk Grove High School.

He even knows where the coaches’ offices, the weight room and the storage sheds are. And he understands the tradition of the storied football program, having read the press clippings and walked past the championship banners. Meraz experienced all of it for a few weeks in the spring of 2008 as Elk Grove’s new football coach, a tenure that started with great promise and flamed out amid boardroom controversy.

Now the coach at Wood High in Vacaville and preparing for Friday’s Sac-Joaquin Section Division II second-round game at Elk Grove, Meraz said he doesn’t dwell on what might have been. He’s too focused on the now. But he doesn’t deny that the past set up the present, and it helped mold him.

Meraz coached the Thundering Herd for three weeks, hired seemingly out of nowhere from a pool of 14 candidates. And he was dismissed before he really got started, a victim of circumstances out of his control.

“What happened at Elk Grove,” Meraz said over the weekend, “it’s pretty far in the past. I enjoyed my time there, and the kids were fantastic, though the circumstances were kind of weird. I’m very happy here.”

Thundering Herd administrators violated Elk Grove Unified School District policy by hiring Meraz. The job should have been offered to a qualified on-campus or in-district teacher, a district rule, so Meraz, who was teaching in Martinez and was not guaranteed a teaching job in Elk Grove, was squeezed out.

Many within the Elk Grove football program and community in 2008 believed the job should have been offered to Jeff Carlson, a two-year co-head coach with Dave Hoskins. But when Hoskins stepped down, Carlson was told by athletic director Peter Archerda he was not actually a co-head coach and would have to apply for the position.

Carlson was a finalist, but Meraz was hired by principal Catherine Guy. Carlson, who still serves as the school’s baseball coach, took an off-campus assistant-coaching job at Sacramento City College and never thought he’d coach football at Elk Grove High again.

Chris Nixon, who was not a finalist for the job in 2008, ultimately wound up as the head coach. He guided three successive 12-win teams and currently has a 9-2 section playoff team. Nixon was Elk Grove’s offensive coordinator in the late 1990s and early 2000s and teaches at Feickert Elementary in Elk Grove.

Archerda later resigned.

“It all worked out,” Nixon said Sunday. “It was weird, a lot of grumblings and rumblings, and the union stepped in. I stuck it out in 2008 because of the players, the coaches, the community. If it were a random place with random people, I wouldn’t step in. But this was a place I’d known.”

Carlson returned to Elk Grove football in 2013 and coached the Herd junior varsity to a 10-0 record this season. He’s now Nixon’s varsity defensive coordinator, and the program has benefited with both coaches in place. And there’s a common tie between Nixon, Carlson and Meraz. None of them is nearing coaching burnout because each has family to balance him.

Nixon’s wife, Tina, stresses over playoff seedings and opponent game film as much as anyone. The Nixons’ sons – Sean and Scott – compete on Elk Grove youth teams and are Friday fixtures as varsity ballboys. Carlson also has two sons, Dylan and Tanner, raised on Elk Grove sports, and his wife, Caryn, gleefully tolerates all of it.

Meraz speaks this universal language. He and wife Suzanne have two young daughters who are regulars at Wood games. They’re not football players, but they dabble in a number of other sports. Meraz celebrated with Wood players after the Wildcats went for a last-second, two-point conversion and beat Burbank 34-33 last Friday, and then he bear-hugged his girls.

Wood and its coach have Nixon’s attention.

“Coach Meraz has done a great job,” Nixon said. “There’s empathy for any coach who goes through what he did here. And it’s easy to think, ‘What a coincidence that it winds up like this.’ But it was bound to happen someday.”

Follow Joe Davidson on Twitter @SacBee_JoeD.

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